C. Antonio Romero
Scotts Valley, CA, 12 June 1999 - Star
Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, one of the most overhyped films
of the last twenty years, finally faded in on screens across America
recently. The film's inevitable financial success is more a testament to
the Star Wars brand and the marketing machine behind it than any
indication of anything about the film itself.
It should hardly
come as a surprise after all this that the film is basically dreadful -
if 1983's Return of the Jedi was any indication, Lucas ran out
of steam on this project a long, long time ago, and is now mostly going
through motions to take advantage of his license to print money.
Seventeen years away from the project have done little to restore Lucas'
energy; if, as it is represented in the press, this film is as purely as
possible a creation of Lucas' vision, then he would do well to bring in
other eyes when he moves on to finish the remaining films.
beyond its mundane awfulness, this film is actually pernicious -
resurrecting, perhaps, more phantoms than it means to from a Hollywood
not so long ago or far away, in a botched attempt to construct a
dime-store allegory on race on Earth that gets hopelessly tangled in its
own internal contradictions.
As far as the overarching plot
is concerned, the film is basically what was promised - the first
chapter of a story whose second half we already know. In the unfolding
of the military and political conflicts that surround the planet Naboo,
the seeds of the later chapters of the story are certainly visible: the
emergence of the Sith, an evil counterforce to the Jedi; the first
appearances of the heroic droid R2D2, the creation of C3P0; the
discovery of the young Annakin Skywalker (later Darth Vader, for those
few not in the know), a long-awaited "chosen one" whose
troubled life is the center of the six-film arc; the rise to power of
Palpatine, senator from the planet Naboo (scene of most of the film's
action) who will eventually become the Emperor of the later films and
Darth Vader's master.
Lucas' claims that this whole backplot
was in his mind when he set out to make the original film are credible
enough, given what's here; and those with an investment in the original
films and in knowing more about that plot will probably want to see this
film and the two more likely to come, purely for completeness' sake.
But even for those who grew up with the original story, it is
ultimately hard to care about anything that happens in this film. The
end is of course overdetermined at this point - we know Annakin
Skywalker's fate from the original three films. But even within those
constraints, a writer who cared about character could have given us
creations more fleshed out, more engaging, than Lucas has. The
characters are in most cases not so much flat as schematic - even Yoda
and Obi-wan Kenobi utterly fail to engage the audience, mostly because
they are hardly here as characters at all.
Very few characters
(except the "comic relief" figures like Jar-Jar Binks - of
whom more later) have anything to do besides move the story along. Darth
Maul, the face of the Phantom Menace represented by the Dark Side of the
Force, is a pure cardboard cutout - mouthing perhaps five lines of
dialogue in the whole film (though he acquits himself quite well in the
Compounding matters, the acting is uniformly
wooden. A fine adult cast-- headlined by Liam Neeson (as Qui-Gon Jinn,
an older Jedi), Ewan MacGregor (the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, here Qui-Gon's
apprentice), and the young but accomplished Natalie Portman (as Queen
Amidala of Naboo) - is wasted, and Samuel L. Jackson makes an entirely
too brief appearance as a senior Jedi. Child actor Jake Lloyd (mostly
remembered, prior to this film, for his part in the excruciating
Schwartznegger-as-comedian vehicle Jingle All the Way) is the
center of the film, playing the young Annakin Skywalker. Lloyd is
clearly the weakest link, at least among the actors, more than earning
the rather nasty nickname "Annakin the Mannakin;" but given
the fate of the very capable adult cast, it's unclear how much of this
to blame on him and how much on Lucas' script and direction.
The dialogue is utterly devoid of wit (when was the last time a robot
actually said "That does not compute" in a science fiction
film, even as a joke?); it is as if no one a long, long time ago had a
sense of humor. Even the film's two major action sequences - a "pod
race" meant to recall full-contact chariot races à la Ben
Hur, and the by-now-obligatory dogfight - fail to make one feel that
anything is at stake. Lloyd is at the center of each sequence, and
frankly isn't likeable enough to even get the audience rooting for him.
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